The NFL blew a rare high-profile opportunity at Super Bowl LV to highlight the importance of safety, sacrifice and social distancing.
The overhead shots, the sweeping camerawork through the stands and the enhanced roar of the crowd made it appear that a stadium that seats 65,000 people was chock full of fans: It was a trick play, a deception to create the optics of excitement, as if the most-hyped sporting event on the planet needed more of that.
There were actually only 25,000 fans in the stadium — about 7,500 of whom were vaccinated health care workers who attended the game as heroes and front-line warriors. The stadium appeared to be full because of 30,000 cardboard cutouts. The league charged fans $100 each to have a virtual, cardboard presence in the stadium and gave each lucky person who paid that fee a link to find themselves on a stadium “fan cam” so they could share their image on social media and enter a contest to win tickets to next year’s Super Bowl. That marketing device had a twofold objective: The cardboard fans dispersed throughout the seats enforced social distancing, and the resulting sea of faces created an image in keeping with what we usually see when we tune in on Super Bowl Sunday.
But this is a year where nothing is normal. We long ago became used to watching sporting events with little or no attendance. No one was going to cry foul if the stands were mostly empty or if the sounds of Super Bowl LV were somewhat subdued. Both moves would have sent a smarter message — stay home for now and stay safe until we can get to the other side of this storm.
That message was even more important because the Super Bowl was in Florida — where the response to the virus has been so disjointed and cavalier that the state motto might as well be “Covid-schmovid.” Huge crowds of mostly maskless fans gathered outside Raymond James Stadium in Tampa in the days leading up to the game despite the city’s mayor asking everyone to mask up at all Super Bowl parties. And just as we’ve seen in college towns after bowl games, throngs of residents flooded the streets on Sunday night to celebrate their hometown team’s win.
I wonder what the health-care workers who were fortunate enough to take a break from their front-line duties to attend the Super Bowl must have thought when they left the stadium Sunday night and saw the sea of revelers on the streets. Covid-schmovid.
The decision to project the image of a full stadium seems even odder given the NFL’s efforts to limit the virus in other ways. Researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention studied the sequestered league-wide universe — a unique cohort — of NFL teams to better understand how the virus spreads. Among the findings: Closing the dining rooms, using face masks, and eliminating in-person, indoor meetings were essential to stopping the virus’s spread even with frequent testing and contact tracing through wearable devices.
Seems like those findings all apply to the spectacle we saw on Sunday night. The health-care workers were vaccinated, but the other 17,500 were not required to be tested or vaccinated before they arrived. And while the NFL did take important safety measures — cashless concessions and gift bags with N95 masks — it is hard to imagine that thousands of people could be fully safe in an environment with a lot of screaming and people doffing their masks to eat and drink.
The NFL has long struggled with mixed messaging. The league that has vowed to spend $250 million to fight systemic racism, and ran a beautiful, moving commercial pledging to fight for social justice, is the same collection of owners that continues to punish Colin Kaepernick for taking a knee to call attention to those very problems. A good player banished because of bad optics.
So much of the Super Bowl is about monetizing optics: the commercials, the over-the-top halftime shows, the supposedly spontaneous decision by the MVP to announce his trip to Disney World while confetti rains down from the sky. But this year there was an opportunity to use the optics in the public interest, for the common good.
So again: Why was it necessary to project an image of a packed stadium in the middle of a pandemic that has claimed more than 460,000 lives? The simple answer is — it wasn’t.